Archive for the ‘Jeremy Ben-Ami’ category

Rabbis for Israel: An Oxymoron or a Necessary Statement

September 19, 2010

Continuing my series of High Holy Day sermons, here is the sermon on delivered on Yom Kippur morning.

This morning’s Torah portion opens with the statement: “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem; rasheichem shivteichem, zikneichem v’shotreichem, kol ish Yisraeil. Tapechem, nasheichem, v’gercha asher b’kerev machanecha, mechotev eitsecha ad sho’ev meimecha – You are standing today, all of you, before Adonai your God; the heads of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man in Israel. Your children, your women, amd the stranger who is in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water.”

At that one moment in history, all Jews stood together – “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem – You are standing here today all of you” – united as a people, united in common cause. There are those who might claim that this was the only moment in history when all Jews stood together, united in common cause. And they might not be that far from the truth. While this might not have been the only moment in our history when all Jews stood united, it probably was one of the few.

It would seem that we Jews have a special talent for disagreeing with each other. I am sure that you have all heard that old joke about two Jews stranded for a long time on a desert island. When finally rescued, they proudly gave their rescuers a guided tour of all they had accomplished during their stay. They showed them their planted fields and their handmade aqueducts, their long term food storage facilities and their comfortable shelters. In the process, they came across one grass hut and the rescuers asked, “What’s that?” to which one of the men said, “That’s the synagogue I attend.” When they came across yet another grass hut, and the rescuers asked, “What’s that?”, the other man replied, “Well that’s the synagogue I attend.” A little later, further down the trail, they came upon a third grass hut, and once again, the rescuers asked “What’s that?” and the two men replied in unison, “That’s the synagogue neither of us would ever set foot in!” Yes, we have a talent for disagreeing with each other. One might almost say that we have transformed argumentation into a sport.

But in spite of the fact that it sometimes seems that we Jews can disagree about more things than we can agree upon, still there are some topics about which we generally do agree. So, for example, we agree that antisemitism is bad. However, we don’t necessarily agree about how we should respond to it. Should we confront it head on or should we ignore it and hope it will go away? We agree that Jews should observe Shabbat and the holidays. However we don’t necessarily agree about how Shabbat and the holidays should be observed. Should we drive on Shabbat? Can we watch television on Shabbat? Turn on the lights? Tear toilet paper? Do we observe Rosh Hashanah for one day or two? Do we observe Sukkot and Pesach for seven days or eight? Are corn, peas, rice, and other foods that puff up when cooked permissible on Pesach or forbidden? We agree that the Torah is our most sacred possession and that through it God speaks to us. However we don’t necessary agree about how God speaks to us through the Torah. Is the Torah word-for-word the actual spoken words of God or is it a human attempt to put into words that fellow human beings can understand a Divine communication which profoundly transcends the narrow boundaries of spoken language?

There is another thing that all Jews should agree upon, but while all may not, at least most Jews do. That is that the continued existence of the State of Israel is an absolute necessity for the Jewish people. After the Holocaust, during which so many of the 6 million Jewish victims died primarily because there was no safe haven to which they could flee from the Nazis, it is absolutely amazing that any Jew could question whether or not the existence of the State of Israel is justified.

Now I am a product of the first post-Holocaust generation, having been born 4 years after the end of the Holocaust and 1 year after the establishment of the State of Israel. So I did not personally witness the world events which produced the Holocaust need for Israel. Yet in my own lifetime I have witnessed it with other persecuted Jewish populations. I, along with so many others, protested on behalf of Soviet Jewry. I worked to raise funds and awareness when it came to the plight of Ethiopian Jewry. And I visited with both sets of immigrants as they studied Hebrew and culture in Israeli absorption centers in order to facilitate their entry into the Israeli society which offered them a safe haven; the safe haven that was there for them but which was not available to those targeted by the Nazis.

That Jews should support the State of Israel should be a no-brainer. Even American Reform Judaism – which originally was anti-Zionist because they feared that support of Zionism might be interpreted as a questionable dual loyalty by their non-Jewish neighbors – even American Reform Judaism began to change its perspective in the 1930’s and has continually grown in its positive relationship with the State of Israel. Israel is the land of our history. It is where Abraham lived, where Isaac and Jacob lived. It is the soil that was trod by Joshua and the Judges, Kings Saul, David, and Solomon, the Prophets and the ancient rabbis. It is the land of our story. Today it is the home for all Jews who wish to live there. It is the home for all Jews who need to live there, for they can no longer survive living in the lands of their birth.

But sad to say, today there is a growing number of Jews who feel little or no connection to the land or the State of Israel. For them, for whatever reasons, Israel is no different than any other foreign land. It could just as easily be Hungary or Kenya or Samoa. Since they have no personal tie to Israel, they feel little or no responsibility to stand up for Israel when she is in need of friends. Indeed, since they have no personal tie to Israel, and yet Israel is associated by the others with them as Jews, they can find themselves feeling embarrassed or even threatened by Israel and the actions she sometimes takes; especially as those actions are presented to the public at large by an often biased media. They may even feel the need to join their voices to those of Israel’s detractors; as much, if not more because they wish to distance themselves as Jews from Israel.

Well one would expect that if Jews today are finding themselves increasingly divided over whether or not to support Israel, then at least Israel should still be able to number among her friends those Jews who, by virtue of the life they have chosen for themselves, should never forget the vital role Israel continues to play for the Jewish people – the rabbis. One would expect it to be axiomatic; rabbis support Israel. If that were truly the case, one would have to wonder why, in recent months, there has arisen a new organization on the world Jewish scene, the name of which is “Rabbis for Israel”?

Yet such an organization does exist. I know. I was present at its birthing. I was one of its earliest members. It pains me to have to admit that the creation of this organization has filled a very real need. For the time has come when not all rabbis are truly for Israel. And then there are those rabbis who claim that they are for Israel but who always seem to take the other side.

What was it that led rabbis such as myself to feel the need for an organization such as Rabbis for Israel?

For a long time on the American Jewish scene, the primary organization representing the interests of Israel was AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Founded in the 1950’s, this organization has grown to become the most powerful pro-Israel organization in America, boasting a membership of over 100,000. There is no question about AIPAC’s intense commitment to the survival of Israel. Indeed, AIPAC tends to be so intense about its commitment that it has a tendency to be blind when it comes to Israel. For, according to AIPAC, Israel can do no wrong. They will vigorously defend Israel no matter what she does and it matters not to them if she sometimes gets way out of line.

Yet while we view Israel as a very special nation, and we expect Israel to conduct herself according to higher standards than the other nations of the world, still Israel is a nation ruled by flesh and blood human beings. Still, Israel is a nation that can make mistakes. Israel is a nation that every once in a while can actually be in the wrong. The problem with AIPAC is that it has a hard time recognizing this. Their failure to do so has the potential of causing Israel more harm than good. For when the supporters of Israel try to justify that which is unjustifiable, it only results in their losing – and in Israel losing – credibility in the eyes of the world.

It was out of this type of frustration with AIPAC that another organization was born – J Street. This organization was founded in 2008, so obviously it is a new comer. Its founders gave it the name J Street for two reasons. Obviously, the letter “J” associates them with “Jews.” But also, and significantly, if one is familiar with the layout of Washington D.C., then one knows that they have streets which are progressively named after the letters of the alphabet – A Street, B Street, and so on. However, in this alphabetical grid, there is one street which – for whatever reasons – is missing. That street is J Street. So the founders named their organization J Street in order to indicate that it was their intention to present an alternative pro-Israel Jewish perspective which, up until then, seemed to have been missing from the conversation.

What is that perspective? J Street identifies itself as an organization which is pro-Israel and pro-peace. Unlike AIPAC, they are willing to recognize that there are times when Israel, by her actions, can harm the cause of peace rather than aid it. So they are fully capable of criticizing Israel as well as supporting her.

J Street endorses the two-state solution and is an avid supporter of the pursuit of diplomatic solutions rather than military ones to the conflicts which divide the Israelis and the Palestinians. Indeed, if someone, especially someone with a liberal perspective, was to go to their website and read through their Statement of Principles, they would most likely find them extremely attractive. I know that I do. In fact, for quite some time I seriously considered joining J Street because, at least in principle, they stand very close to where I stand.

However, as there is a problem with AIPAC, there is a problem with J Street as well. For J Street does not always operate strictly according to its principles. Indeed, some of the positions that it has taken have seemed somewhat contradictory to its principles. The reason for this is that J Street can often get lost in its self proclaimed freedom to criticize Israel. Eager to present itself as a conciliatory Jewish voice to Israel’s detractors, it is all too ready to jump on their band wagon; all too ready to lay fault and blame for conflict solely or primarily at Israel’s feet. Personally, I view this as another manifestation of a phenomenon we witness in our own country, where there are those who are so “liberal” – and I put that word in quotes, and remember, I consider myself a liberal – who are so liberal that whatever America does, they see America as being in the wrong. And just as there are those people who are always criticizing America, the folks at J Street seem to always criticize Israel.

It was that dichotomy between their principles and their actions that caused me to struggle with whether or not I should join. In fact, in my struggle, I sent out an email to a select group of rabbinic colleagues, sharing my indecision and seeking their counsel. Some of them were supporters of J Street, some were supporters of AIPAC, and some were like me; undecided and seeking an ideological home. Well the dialogue was fascinating. And it was out of that dialogue that one of my Israeli colleague, Rabbi Mickey Boyden, decided to organize Rabbis for Israel.

This whole question of “to J Street or not to J Street” came to a head for me, and for many others, with the Gaza Flotilla Crisis of this past summer. No sooner had the incident taken place than the president of J Street, Jeremy Ben Ami, issued a statement in the name of J Street, severely castigating Israel for its attack on the ship Mavi Mamara. It disturbed us greatly that he did not even give Israel the opportunity to state its case; he did not even wait for the facts to come in. He just assumed that Israel was in the wrong. Of course, as the videos became available and the facts became apparent, Israel was not in the wrong. The violence was the product of a planned assault by those on the ship.

So Rabbis for Israel came into being. This organization envisions itself as being centrist. Unlike AIPAC, it refuses to turn a blind eye to Israel’s failings, but also unlike J Street, it refuses to assume that Israel is always in the wrong. It is committed to seeing that in the eyes of the world Israel is given a fair shake. Like J Street, it endorses the two state solution. But unlike J Street, it recognizes that when things go awry between Israel and the Palestinians, more often than not, no one side is to blame but both carry responsibility. Those who try to lay blame exclusively at the feet of one side or the other – at the feet of the Palestinians or at the feet of the Israelis – ultimately do more harm than good to the cause of peace. Scape goating will never bring peace to the Middle East. Only honesty, an ability to accept responsibility for one’s actions, and an openness to compromise and change on the part of all parties, will bring about that peace.

So why the name Rabbis for Israel? Because the members of this organization have been really frustrated with so many of our colleagues. While so many of these other rabbis – rabbis who, believe it or not, openly oppose Israel, or who align themselves with either AIPAC or J Street – may or may not claim that they are for Israel, the stands that they take and the pronouncements that they make do Israel more harm than good. How can you truly be for Israel if you turn a blind eye to her faults, and how can you truly be for Israel if you automatically assume that whatever she does is wrong? To truly be for Israel, you must be willing to support her and to have faith in her. You must be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt yet also be willing to call upon her to do better when she has gone astray. It will only be when we, as rabbis, and we as Jews, are willing to meet those criteria that we will be able to find ourselves in another one of those special moments in Jewish history when, like in our Torah portion, we are standing together, all of us, united as a people, united in our common cause, that cause being our loving support of the State of Israel.

Advertisements

Reflections on Peace Advocacy and the Gaza Floatilla

June 2, 2010

Israel has been on my mind a great deal of late – even before the crisis over the tragic interception of the Gaza Flotilla.  Prior to this most recent crisis, I had been anguishing over whether or not to officially add my name as a supporter of J Street.  It all started when one of my congregants approached me about it.  He had read some J Street material and wanted my advice as to whether or not he should throw in his support.  His questions brought focus to my own indecision on the matter.  So I went back on the J Street website, read their vision statements, and, like my congregant, found a great deal with which I could agree.  For, I too, am a big supporter of a two-state solution which needs to be arrived at through serious non-violent negotiations; a two state solution which would deliver to the Palestinians a nation of their own of which they could be proud, while at the same time would deliver to the Israelis a positive resolution to their security concerns.  However, all that being said, I still had an uneasy feeling that rightly or wrongly, J Street was identified as an influential Jewish voice, all too often critical of Israel.

In my struggle to resolve this question, I gathered, via email, a list of some 50 rabbinic colleagues whose opinions I value greatly; some of them ardent supporters of J Street, some opponents, and many whose positions  I simply did not know.  I shared with them my indecision and my questions, seeking their insights and counsel.  And we were off to the races.  Not all responded to my queries.  Many of those who did, did so privately.  Others shared their thoughts with the entire group.  Many and diverse were their opinions.  So many excellent points were made on both sides.  My eyes were opened to new perspectives on the issue. But in the end, I still remained undecided.  Yet in the process, I came to truly believe that J Street was often misunderstood and intentionally misinterpreted.  I found that more often than not, their statements honestly strove to be evenhanded and fair, but between sensationalist media, unscrupulous politicians, and Israel’s enemies, what came most to the public eye were, and are, their critiques of Israel.  I saw it  akin to the old media adage about “Man bites dog” over “dog bites man.”  It is not news when Jews support Israel or criticize the Palestinians, but when Jews criticize Israel, now that is newsworthy.

I also was brought to the realization that it would be great if there was a “J Street” like organization on the Palestinian side, equally dedicated to the peace process and equally willing to criticize both parties in an evenhanded manner.  But alas, while there are Muslim peace organizations, they usually speak in whispers and do not garner the type of support and prestige that an organization like J Street does within the Jewish and the general community.  This is a tragic unfulfilled need, for in order for an organization like J Street to most effectively address its mission, it really needs a real Muslim partner organization with which it could work hand-in-hand.

It was while my colleagues and I were in the midst of these discussions that we woke up one morning to learn of the violence which had taken place in the waters off of Gaza.

Many groups and world leaders were quick to make statements in response to that situation, even though the facts were far from complete and the story was still unfolding.  Among them were Jeremy Ben-Ami, the President of J Street, as well as Yaariv Oppenheimer, speaking for another Jewish peace organization – Americans for Peace Now.  Mr. Ben-Ami made the following remark which I found disturbing:  “We do know, however, that today is one more nail in the coffin for hopes of ending of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict peacefully and diplomatically and for preserving Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.”  As for Mr. Oppenheimer, in an article published in the Israeli newspaper, MaAriv, he wrote a statement which I found equally disturbing:  “Tonight Israel marked a new low point in the way it chose to contend with its domestic and external policy dissidents.  A state that will not let its citizens protest, demonstrate and demand justice, a state that is busy composing loyalty tests for its citizens and passing laws to limit the freedom of expression, failed again in the real test and stopped a protest fleet of civilian ships at the cost of more than ten lives.”

Statements like these are precisely why I have discomfort with organizations like J Street and Peace Now.  While I share their ultimate vision of arriving at a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I cannot condone  their knee jerk reactions which immediately assume that Israel is in the wrong in whatever crisis arises.  I find myself scratching my head and wondering why Mr. Ben-Ami of J Street could not have ended his statement at the word “diplomatically” but felt the need to go forward with the assumption the Israel’s actions have done great harm to her fundamental “Jewish and democratic character.”  And as for Mr. Oppenheimer, just the simple fact that an article such as his could appear in a major Israeli publication like MaAriv gives far greater testimony in opposition to his premise for the Israeli democracy is alive and well as long as it permits those who so wish to publicly protest against the actions and policies of its government.

For my part, the events of the last few days have triggered an odd confluene of reflections.  It almost seems ironic that a short while back, I was re-watching the film “Thirteen Days”, about the Cuban missile crisis.  Every time I watch that film I am flooded with memories of the actual event.  As if it were yesterday, I recall my childhood conversations with my childhood friends, wondering whether or not the end of the world was upon us; whether or not the Russians would stage a nuclear attack.  It was indeed a frightening time, especially for children.  Yet with that danger being real and present, there was no question of the legitimacy of Kennedy’s use of a naval blockade in defense of our country; at least not among those of us us who were living under the threat of a missile attack.  Then my thoughts have likewise turned to the painful fact that as Americans, at this very hour, our combat troops have their boots on the foreign soil of two nations – Iraq and Afghanistan – ostensibly waging a war against terrorists who supposedly threaten the security of our nation and its citizens.  So one American President can conduct a naval blockade – in international waters – against another nation, in defense of our country, and it is considered appropriate and heroic.  Two American Presidents can send and maintain troops on the soil of two sovereign nations, having invaded both of them, in defense of our country against terrorism.  While there are those among us who protest this fact, those troops remain, yet we do not view the failure of our protests to achieve their goal as indicative of the demise of American democracy.

Then we have Israel.  Who in their right mind can question the very real danger posed to the security of the nation of Israel and its citizens by the terrorist actions of Hamas, coming out of Gaza?  Who can doubt that if the borders of Gaza were left wide open, there would be no question but that arms aplenty would flood into Gaza, all intended to be used against Israel, and specifically against Israeli citizens?  The threat of arms being smuggled into Gaza is a very real one and an Israeli government which would intentionally ignore that threat would be dramatically negligent, and perhaps even criminally negligent.  So while a blockade and a siege of Gaza is not a desirable course of action, especially from a humanitarian perspective, it – like the naval blockade of Cuba in the 60’s – would seem to be a necessary one in the name of national defense.  It is tragic but unavoidable that in defending one people from those who threaten its security, there very well may be loss of life – sometime, most tragically, innocent loss of life.  If any nation should understand that harsh reality, it should be the U.S., which has been faced with that very same situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  There is a certain hypocrisy when an American President (one whose election I personally supported and worked for, you should know) who is the Commander-in-Chief of combat troops on foreign soil waging active war in defense of our nation’s security, turns around and criticizes Israel for committing her troops in order to defend her people.  It is wrong to have two standards of behavior – one for the U.S. and another for Israel.  I cannot help but think that the children of Sderot – especially before the Gaza War – were holding among themselves conversations quite similar to the ones I was involved in as a child during the Cuban missile crisis.

I am not offering a wholesale justification for Israel’s actions of the past weekend.  She made plenty of mistakes, not the least of which was naively expecting her troops to encounter actual peace activists rather than violent opponents.  But it is far too easy for all of us Monday morning quarterbacks to provide Israel with our sage post facto counsel.  The hard truth on the ground is that Israel had every good reason to suspect that along with the humanitarian cargo on those ships was also a cargo of weaponry.  With that possibility, those ships did pose a very real security threat to the citizens of Israel and needed to be searched.  How Israel did go about that task will be a matter of  fierce debate in the coming months.  But in all of this, I cannot concur with Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street nor with Yaariv Oppenheimer of Americans for Peace Now, that the actions here constitute a threat to the character of Israeli democracy, nor that legitimate attempts to protect the physical safety of her citizens constitute a threat to the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

POSTSCRIPT: Two days after I published the above posting, the Office of the White House Press Secretary released the following statement from National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer:

“The government of Israel has stated its desire to avoid a confrontation and a repeat of Monday’s tragic events on the Mavi Marmara.  It remains a U.S. priority to provide assistance to the people of Gaza.  In the interest of the safety of all involved, and the safe transmission of assistance to the people of Gaza, we strongly encourage those aboard the Rachel Corrie and other vessels to sail to Ashdod to deliver their materials to Gaza.

“We are working urgently with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and other international partners to develop new procedures for delivering more goods and assistance to Gaza, while also increasing opportunity for the people of Gaza and preventing the importation of weapons.  The current arrangements are unsustainable and must be changed.  For now, we call on all parties to join us in encouraging responsible decisions by all sides to avoid any unnecessary confrontations and to ensure the safety of all involved.”